Caring for Our Pets and Ourselves at the End of Their Lives

Photo credit: Blair O’Neil

If ever you’ve lost a beloved pet, or you are close to losing one, I think this piece will resonate with you. My friend, Susan Shannon, who lives and works in California, is the author. She is an animal minister and chaplain who truly understands relationships between people and their pets. She has given me permission to share the following article with you. If you are moved by what Susan has written, please voice your comments. I know she will appreciate them.

Helping Your Pet Let Go

Chances are, your beloved furry soul mate pet knew before you did that the time to say goodbye was approaching. That doesn’t make it any easier of course. Our pets absorb our thoughts, feelings and emotions in ways we as humans are just beginning to understand. It is quite possible that your thoughts about your pet’s old age, sickness, injury, etc are getting in the way of them being able to let go.

Our pets often tune into our sadness, conflicted grief, worry and concern and internalize it as if they are the cause of your sadness. True, they are, but not because they are “bad.” It is important for us to “send” them the thought-images that whatever the cause of their impairment is, that it is not their fault. They are reaching the end of their life in this body, but they need to be assured that the joy they have given you continues and WILL continue even after their spirit is released. Talk to them outwardly and inwardly to let them know that this is a natural process and that leaving their body does not mean their spirit will be abandoned by you.

This asks a lot of us humans-and this is a good skill that we, as chaplains and ministers, will have a lot of opportunities to practice. When we are involved in care-giving our pet animals OR humans, it is helpful to bring an altruistic awareness to everything we do for them. When we are administering medication, think, “May this elixir transform all elements of suffering and pain into the pure ground of being” or something in that realm of thinking. Compare the energy behind this positive affirmation to the energy of “I am so full of sadness and sorrow that I have to force you to take this.” or, “Here goes another $5.00 pill.” or something like that. Your pet feels the emotional charge in everything you do or feel.

Keep this altruistic line of thought when you are cleaning their excrement, too. Animals have pride-often, when incontinence strikes, they are ashamed and might even expect to be punished. This can be a real challenge to the humans, but you can let them know that this is part of the bond you made when you took them under your stewardship. This is a sign that their bodies are getting ready to let go, and that soon their spirits will be set free from this kind of substance. Be gentle with them when you clean them, tell them it is ok, and try to practice equanimity.

The Journey Ahead: Theirs and Yours

It is wise to have more than one “conversation” with your pet about the journey ahead. Let them know that they will be released from their body into a realm of light and love. Let them know that when that happens their home in your heart will become the most constant place of connection-that you and them will always be together then, that there will no longer be separation. Let them know that once they are released from this body, this body which has served them well and given both of you much enjoyment, that they will experience a freedom that you will celebrate. During these conversations it is helpful to let the animal know how and when you will remember them, such as visits to places you loved, other dog friends, rides in the car, cuddling on the couch, etc.

Our animals want to know that we will be cared for too. Let them know how you will fill your time once they are gone. Show them, through your thought-pictures, what you will do: working in the garden, walking, jogging, biking, playing music, whatever it is that feeds you, let them know that you will continue to engage in these activities. Help them understand that you will be healthy, that you will be engaged, that yes, you will be sad for a little while but that when you are sad at their loss you will talk to them and keep their spirits warm in the present tense of your grief and loss.

Be Ready, Be Aware: Complicated Grief and Exploring Your Own Theology

If you have recently lost someone dear to you, if you were raised with the idea that “boys don’t cry” or “the funeral is over so get over it” or “euthanasia is murder” or any similar code of thought, you might have a very difficult time with initiating your pet’s transition. Be aware that all of this is normal, and utilize whatever resources (see above for some sources) to find your solid ground here.

Your own personal theology about death, or your lack of personal theology around death will factor into your feelings. This is a good time to explore whatever that is or isn’t in the current context of letting your pet go.

Compassionate Release

You can let your pet know that “compassionate release” or euthanasia is an act of love and the highest intention of commitment as a human being in your decision to free them from the suffering of their body. If you plan on ritualizing the passage, you can also let them know what each stage of the ritual means to you and to them. Focus on the release from form to the formless, and give formless an introduction as a place we all come from, go back to, and to some degree, live in on a daily basis. As their spirit transitions, you might feel them hovering around the space you shared with them. If so, acknowledge them, but let them know that they have your full permission to soar the heights of the spirit realm in true joy and freedom, and that you will still be joined with them, even more so, when they are beyond time and space into the formless realms. Your love, your light, your joy, will always be with them-and theirs with you!

Plan Ahead

As you contemplate the time to let your pet go, offer yourself deep discernment around what is best for you. Do you want to keep your pet at home for this transition? If so, get referrals for vets who do home visits. Many vets will offer a deep, respectful compassionate presence as they release your pet in your own home. You might want to keep the body for a while afterwards for your own prayers or for closure with respect to other family members who might need to see the pet before burial or cremation.

If you are doing the euthanasia at home, it is important to make arrangements to either bury your pet, bring the body to a pet crematorium, or have the vet take the body or come back to pick up the body after you have closure. Think ahead. Get all your ducks in a row before choosing the date and time so that when the moment comes, you can be totally present with all that is on the day.

When The Hour Has Come

When the time has come for your pet’s final vet appointment, do what you can to be at peace. Some people make a special bed for their beloved. Some give them their favorite foods if they can still eat. If you have personal deities or teachers who you feel would be good spirit guides for your pet’s transition, you can make a little altar near the bed. It is good to keep in mind though that these things are more for your own peace. For your pet, YOU are their guide, their deity, their protector. Their needs are very few at this point.

Some people have soft, gentle music playing. Again, that is fine, but know that this is more for you. As your animal’s consciousness goes from being tranquilized to finally leaving its body, sometimes it is best to have silence. As the vet administers the sedative before the terminal injection, if possible, allow your palm to gently hover above your pet’s forehead, drawing the attention and focus of the life force there, in the third eye area, then moving and holding your hand above the animal’s crown chakra area before the second injection. You don’t need to touch the animal-the energy from your palm is enough. You can silently pray to the God/Goddesses you find strength in to guide your pet home, visualizing them around your beloved. In this way you can assist the consciousness leaving the body through the highest energy center.

Honor What YOU Need

Everyone has their own style and needs when dealing with grief and loss. Be true to what YOU need. Some people benefit by cleaning up all of their pet’s toys, leash, bed, bowls, litter boxes, even vacuuming the whole house before the body is taken away. After the body is gone from your house, it might be good to leave the house for a night, or at least the day. Ritualize what you do next, with the focus on self-care. This is what your pet would want. Let the honest tears fall, and allow them to continue as much as they want, but take care of yourself. Do something physical, do something distracting, sit in meditation, take a bath, just do what nurtures YOU.

For others, keeping the remembrances of their pets in the home can help with closure, in which case they might WANT to keep their pet’s toys etc. around. There is no right or wrong with what you need.

Afterwards

Yes, there will be tears. Yes, there will be sadness, loss, grief, perhaps even remorse or guilt. Losing a beloved pet can be even more traumatic than losing beloved humans. After all, they loved you unconditionally. Don’t let anyone minimize your grief. This is really important. “Get over it, it was just an animal.” is one of the most misinformed lines ever. Use care with whomever you turn to for companionship during this time. If you have a friend who has gone through this process, he/she might be a good start. If you need to talk about your grief further, it is helpful to find some local pet-grief/loss groups. If that is not available, there are a number of “rainbow bridge” pet loss on-line forums.

In conclusion, helping you and your pet travel this journey of the soul is a blessing for sure, but is also a painful realization of the impermanence of all our relationships. You can help their spirit release from their body by letting them know that you will never be separate in your heart, and by showing them that you will take good care of yourselves after they are gone. This is a lifelong practice that will serve you well in the transitions of all your relationships, human or animal. Remember to be gentle, hold your intention of love and thanks gently but firmly, and fully recognize the teachings our beloved four-leggeds have to give us by opening your heart more to the many ways the Divine works. In this way you are embracing the true gifts of Animal Ministry.

Best wishes,

Nancy Kay, DVM

Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Author of Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
Become a Fan of Speaking for Spot on Facebook

Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health.   There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health are available at www.speakingforspot.com, Amazon.com, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.

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23 Comments on “Caring for Our Pets and Ourselves at the End of Their Lives

  1. You may ask, how does this relate to Susan Shannon’s article…

    I worked as the maintenance guye(girl of unsurpassed youthful exuberance) at an elementary school in Northern California, in 1997. One morning as I was making my rounds, I discovered a stray pup, about 7 months old, playing with the children on the playground. None of the kids knew the dog so I got a rope, took him into the bus garage, tied him securely and called animal control. Thankfully, in our rural community, animal control is slow to respond. Over the next three hours, I checked on him frequently, discovering that he was so very sweet and had raging ear infections in both ears. At that time our shelter was not a no-kill shelter and not well funded. I believed that he would be euthanized as his ears were so bad.
    I decided he was too sweet to be put down, so I cancelled animal control fed him and took him home to find him a new person to love.
    We already had a dog, a female rottweiler, so I was not going to keep him. I called him Poochy, because I knew his new people would change it anyway.
    I discovered that his previous people had abandoned him and moved away. They left him chasing cars on a busy highway. I felt I had saved him from almost certain death, twice!

    I advertised him in our local paper. Border collie mix needs a new family.
    Finally a man and woman came to see him. As I ran him through his repertoire of clever things, the woman asked, “why are you trying to find a home for him? He is your dog!”
    They left. A few days later I realized that she was right and renamed him Shadow.
    We loved Shadow for 15 years. At age 11, he developed lymphoma and Dr. Nancy guided him through Chemo-therapy.
    At 15 he began to show us that his end of time was closing in on us all.
    He went downhill quickly, but we treated him kindly and lovingly as we had for 15 years. His activity level plummeted. His vision and hearing went also. We gave him heat blankets, gave him soft foods and extra amounts of love. My husband carried him out to bathroom. He could no longer stand on his own, and this night he would not eat. I put him to bed on his favorite spot, right next to Dad’s chair and covered him to keep him warm.
    We decided that if he didn’t leave us in the night, we would help him the next morning.
    I awoke to find he had left us in the night. Probably minutes after I put him to bed.
    I got my husband up and told him that Shadow left us.
    We left him on his bed, covered to his shoulders.
    We got our coffee and sat with him for 2 hours discussing the joy we shared.
    We took him later to our vet for cremation.
    When I got home I took his collar and put it in a place of distinction. I
    turned to walk away and one of our other 3 dogs hit me in the behind hard. I turned to see who had done this. No one was there. The other 3 dogs were all in the doorway of the garage, 40 feet in front of me.
    No, it was Shadow, letting me know that he is still around. It happens frequently and mostly in the kitchen. As I prepare a meal, he hits me in the leg. He gave us joy for 15 years in the flesh, now it’s his spirit.
    I believe this with all my heart.

  2. Thank you Dr. Kay! It took me a few days to absorb this article because I am still grieving for my dachshund Lala (DOD 6/1/13) — should be over it! Searched on the internet for books by Susan Shannon, animal minister and chaplain, which led me to discover the world of animal ministers!

    In 1848, Hans Christian Anderson wrote “The Story of a Mother,” which may make him an animal minister. In 1859, Anderson wrote “The Dead Child.” Both Anderson’s favorites because they helped mothers.

    Thank you for your posts.

  3. What words of love can I give you? How can I help to ease your way?
    Thank you Dr. Kay for your insight as we all struggle and will continue to struggle with end of life of a loved one and answers to these two questions.

  4. Our previous dog was a male Leonberger who passed at over 11 years old.
    Lazarus always was very healthy and never suffered from common joint problems like many “Giant” breed dogs.
    One night Lazarus cane upstairs to our bedroom and wanted to get into bed with my wife and me. This had Never happened in all of his 11 + years we had him. I think it was because he was so big he never could get comfortable with all 3 of us in bed.
    But that night he jumped up on the bed and snuggled in between my wife and I and went to sleep calm and peacefully.
    Both my wife and I laughed and commented, I wonder what got into him.
    The next morning I couldn’t wake him. We phoned his Vet and he came to our house. Lazarus had suffered heart failure and had to be put to sleep.
    Both my wife and I are convinced he knew he was going to die and wanted to spend his last hours close to his family who he loved and he knew loved him.

  5. I was delighted to receive your link to this blog on my newslink page today. My beloved companion, Dixie, who was rescued after Hurricane Katrina (one of hundreds who ultimately were housed in 6 warehouses) and subsequently joined me when her former owners did not come forward to claim her, was diagnosed with pancreatitis (which non-fat Greek yogurt has helped heal) and an “almost always fatal immune disease” last spring. We are working together to become the exception to that fatality prognosis, and doing very well; however, I know her time in physical body will come in a few years irregardless, and the compassion of this blog has been really helpful for me in going forward. I have been asking for help from our Guides, and delighted to read that they will and are responding to those requests. Thank you so very much.

  6. While reading Susan’s article I found many of her words very similar to books I have read by animal communicators, such as Sonya Fitzpatrick, and books by channeled spirits such as Abraham-Hicks. Sonya’s latest book, “There Are No Sad Dogs in Heaven”, is all about pets that have crossed over. The animals then can be with us wherever we are, at work, at school, and at home, and are there whenever we call to them. I ask my animal companions in spirit world for help all the time and they do indeed help me. Susan’s words about “permission to soar the heights of the spirit realm” reminds me of the Abraham children’s books, the Sara Series, where the they do get to soar to the heavens. But one trick I learned from animal communicator Lydia Hiby’s book, “Conversations with Animals”, is to take pictures of the animal right after euthanasia. Sometimes you can see in the photographs the spirits of other pets who have previously crossed over coming to help this pet cross over into the spirit world. Somehow the images of spirits do show up on film. I don’t know if it works with digital photographs but it does work with pictures using film. My hairdresser is one who can see the spirits in the photos and point out the faces to me.

  7. We had to put our lovely Justine down on October 28th. Before she passed away I begged her to return to us in spirit, with our other doggy kids. She has been back! I cried so much as I read the article, thinking of Justine. We miss her so much and she will be forever in our hearts. We all love her!!! Our other “kids” have felt her presence. Thank you, Dry Kay, for sharing this wonderful article!!!!!!

  8. Ruby left this world on September 29th. A Dal mix adopted at 7 months she was the greatest companion imaginable. Having been adopted by three other canines in the past, thought knew what it would be like… the forever loss in this world of one’s best friend.
    Energetic, enthusiastic about life, always ready for the next thing… my forever buddy.. sweet and gentle with toddlers; never, ever displayed aggression. kids adored her…as horrible as it was when it was determined she had a peripheral nerve tumor on her right rear flank; after removal it became severely infected; through nursing her back to health with the blessing of outstanding veterinarians throughout, it was arthritis and worsening seizures that took there tool on my strong, brave, beautiful girl. A mobile vet who had been Ruby’s Dr. for 1.5 hrs relaxed Ruby and then euthanized her. I was hysterical and felt like I had murdered her. Eventually i calmed down. For at least two
    weeks i would awaken in the middle of the night overcome with grief…and still the tears fall when i think about her, but… she really did know it was time as her suffering was just too mu for her…I thought after entering my six decade of life I would be matter of fact about this but y point here is, the connection is so deep when it is severed by necessity it is almost like losing a limb…yes you will continue but your baby cake canine will remain with you upfront and center for a long time to come.
    i thank you.

  9. Thank you for such a valuable tool to help us release our “children” when it is their time. It is so very painful but so very necessary to allow animals to die with dignity. We probably hung on too long with our beloved Mr. Poundcake before we finally made the decision to have him euthanized. A compassionate vet came to our house to execute. We cried and cried in the privacy of our home versus in our car while trying to drive home. It was the best decision we made and will do it this way again when it is the right time for our new kittens, Boomer and Zoomer.

    Again thank you for sharing your wisdom and insight.

  10. Hi Vernon. Thanks for your feedback. It is fine to share this article with others. Susan and I request that you include the article in its entirety along with appropriate credits. Best wishes to you.

  11. This truly a beautiful article. It puts everything in a proper perspective. We had two let two friends go -Jennifer and George (to whom you wrote a note in your book) when you were still at Animal Care Center. Susan’s and your words are appreciated.

    If possible, I would like to pass this on to my fellow members at Golden Gate Basset Rescue who frequently pass though this trauma.

    Many thanks for all you do.

  12. The great thing about Yorkies is that they live a long time. The worst thing about Yorkies is that they live a long time. We have three of them that replaced the three we lost over the last ten years or so. The most memorable was Casey; always full of life and energy. But, after 16 years of love of life, she started going deaf. Then blind. Then came the seizures. Still she hung on. She just wouldn’t let go. Towards the end when she was too weak to go out by herself, I would take her out and place her on the grass to pee. I would hold her while inhaled the woodland air which I am sure reminded her of the many walks we took in Valley Forge Park.
    Her last day, though she was very close to leaving us, I was persuaded to take her to a vet for the final needle.
    Our vet was not available and they assigned me a vet I did not know. She was in a hurry and annoyed at having to interrupt her schedule. She couldn’t find a vein and asked my permission to inject directly into Casey’s heart.
    I was skeptical and asked if it would hurt her. No she said. Casey was too far gone to feel it.
    So the vet stuck the needle through Casey’s rib cage into her heart. Casey woke from her sleep and screamed and screamed for several long minutes until she mercifully died. I considered doing bodily harm to this vet but of course I didn’t. I also wanted to file a complaint with the veterinary state board.
    But, I just took Casey home and buried her with her friends at the end of the garden. Whenever I mow the lawn near that spot, I say hello to her.

  13. Thank you for these thoughts. My 13 year old companion is transitioning. I have done some of the preparation recommended, but not all of it. Thank you for the reminders and nudges to action.

    You have been an invaluable part of our work. Thank you.

  14. Hi Sandy. Susan and I are fine with you sharing this piece with your clients. We do ask that you include the article in its entirety along with appropriate credits. Thanks for your interest.

  15. This is so well written. I would like permission to share it with some of my clients. How can I go about securing that permission?

  16. Well written. I read the entire article with tears in my eyes, as I have lost 2 rescue senior boxers that I had loved for several years this year. It was difficult to let them go but I knew it was time. I always hold a big paw and tell them that it is okay. I will see them again some day. Soon after I lost one I ended up in the hospital for 9 days with H1N1 and pneumonia. I could feel his huge loving spirit there with me and it was so comforting. Our pets may be gone but they are never forgotten.

  17. Incredibly beautiful. I am saving this essay. We did our best for Maggie when we finally realized it was time to let her go 2 and a half years ago. Her ashes, her collar, a bit of her fuzz, are on my dresser with a favorite photo. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of her and miss her and remember all of our good times. We have a “new” dog now, that we love deeply. A friend said that she believes that the old dog sits at the shoulder of the new dog and guides her. I like that too.

  18. A touching and empathetic piece that resonated deeply with me. I lost my two girls earlier this year to kidney failure – both within a week. I had to let MeiMei go – the best and worst decision of my life, and Kitti left naturally on her own. I truly believe animals are more in-tuned and aware of the other realm than we are. We just need to let them know that it’s all right for them to leave. And we need to open our minds to receiving signs from them after they’ve passed on. Thank you, I will be sharing this article with my friends.

  19. This is truly beautiful. Many people, myself included, regards what others simply call “pets”, as family members. As such, they deserve nothing less than our compassion and our love. They are there to greet us when we come home, are faithful, do not judge us and they love us unconditionally. That’s the purest love I know. Letting go is never easy, but the final gift we can give them is comfort and love. I wish peace and healing for anyone who has to go through this very hard time. It’s never easy. Just remember that you made a difference in a beautiful animals life.

  20. Thank you so much. 3 weeks ago I had to send my blue heeler over the bridge. I had gotten her as a 6 week old puppy and in January she would have been 16 years old. She was my best friend, my companion, my protector, my one I told my secrets to, and the one I could cry to when my father passed away after a long battle with cancer this past spring. She was my camping partner, there were very few places that she did not go with me.

    My vet sat and cried with me. She even thanked me for not letting my best friend suffer.

    Thursday of this week I will go pick up her ashes and bring her home. A small part of her will be put in a locket and hung in the trailer…..where she will always be going with me on my camping trips, just like she did the last 16 summers.

    Run free Shamia…..I love you.

  21. Something I wrote for myself. I do try to send it to people when I hear that their pet (usually dog) has passed.

    Variation of Sunrise Sunset

    Is this the little pup I carried?
    Too tired to make it home on walks?

    I don’t remember growing older?
    When did you?

    When did you get that silver muzzle?
    When did you get to be so frail?

    Wasn’t it yesterday
    When you were small?

    Sunrise, sunset, sunrise, sunset,
    Swiftly fly the days,
    Puppies turn quickly into grown dogs
    Aging even as we gaze

    Sunrise, sunset, sunrise, sunset,
    Swiftly fly the years,
    One season following another,
    Laden with happiness and tears

    What words of love can I give you?
    How can I help to ease your way?

    Go now and leave us for the Bridge
    I’ll meet you there

    You look so natural, like sleeping
    On that first night long ago

    I will love, remember you forever

    Sunrise, sunset, sunrise, sunset,
    Swiftly fly the days,
    Puppies turn quickly into grown dogs
    Aging even as we gaze

    Sunrise, sunset, sunrise, sunset,
    Swiftly fly the years,
    One season following another,
    Laden with happiness and tears

  22. How beautiful….wish I had known some of this when I lost my GSP, Hope, to make her passing a bit more gentle…..but I did the best I could, holding her close and talking to her until she was gone…..thank you for your insight and wisdom.

  23. Beautifully and compassionately written. And so timely. I have days when I feel it’s time to let Lexi go, and I’ve actually talked to her – letting her know it’s OK to leave if she’s ready.

    But then we have incredible “up” days where she wants to walk and explore (even if it is just around the block) and I let her take her time.

    I’ve had conversations with a truly compassionate end-of-life veterinarian and know when it’s time we’ll go to her.

    Thank you for sharing this, Dr. Kay, and please tell Susan thank you for penning this.